Hundreds of thousands of gay men and lesbians from across the country marched past the White House and flooded the Mall yesterday in a largely peaceful procession to demand an equal place in American society.

The marchers, accompanied by family, friends and other supporters, streamed for more than six hours down Pennsylvania Avenue NW, waving thousands of rainbow flags, a symbol of gay liberation.

At rallies on the Mall, many speakers linked the event in spirit and ambition to the historic 1963 civil rights march on Washington and argued that after 30 years, homosexuals are the last segment of the citizenry that still faces legally sanctioned discrimination.

Leaders of the march, who called it a landmark in the history of the gay rights movement, said that the commitment shown yesterday would bring political gains and inspire thousands more gay men and women to celebrate -- not hide -- their sexual orientation.

"This whole experience has been very moving," said Barak Gale, 37, of Walnut Creek, Calif. "We don't want special rights; we just want the right to love like everyone else."

President Clinton, who campaigned aggressively for gay votes last fall, was out of town and did not attend the march, as many gay and lesbian leaders had pleaded with him to do. Instead, he sent a letter that was read by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the demonstrators -- some of whom chanted "Where is he?"

"I stand with you in the struggle for equality for all Americans, including gays and lesbians," Clinton said in the letter.

The president, who met with gay leaders in the White House earlier this month, also urged the country to "put aside what divides us and focus on what we share."

Even without Clinton's presence, gay rights leaders exulted in the huge turnout -- and the moment.

"We're coming in from the outside to take our place at the table," Torie Osborn, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told the crowd. "This is the decade. We are coming home."

U.S. Park Police estimated that the crowd for the march, the first national gay rights demonstration in six years, was about 300,000, far short of the 1 million that gay organizers had predicted. Organizers angrily disputed the Park Police estimate and stuck by the 1 million figure, saying it had been confirmed by a D.C. government official.

That official, however, said his preliminary crowd count was closer to 500,000.

Police and march organizers also had clashed over crowd estimates at a gay rights march in 1987, previously the largest such gathering of gays and their supporters in the nation. Park Police said there were 200,000 demonstrators then; gay rights leaders put the count at 650,000.

For most of the day, the march proceeded in an orderly way and with little incident. Witnesses said someone threw a liquid in the face of a man who was protesting the march near 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The man, Fred Phelps, was with a church group from Kansas that was holding signs that said, "Sodomy Is Not a Human Right." He was treated at a first aid tent on the Mall, according to a D.C. official.

D.C. police said they arrested four people on disorderly conduct charges after a fight at 13th Street and Pennsylvania NW, but gave no further details.

Religious groups led small counter-demonstrations along the march route. On some corners, ministers stood alone and used bullhorns to tell the gay men and lesbian marchers to repent for what the ministers described as the sin of homosexuality.

"These people are out to take hostage the nation's capital," said Harley David Belew, of New York, one member of a church group.

Other protesters, angry over Clinton's plan to lift the ban against gays serving in the military, also jeered gay marchers as they arrived on chartered buses that parked at the Pentagon. Some of those counter-demonstrators wore stickers that said, "Protect Our Privates, Armed Forces Forever Straight."

Yesterday's march was the culmination of a week of ceremonies and protests organized by gay and lesbian leaders to affirm their lives, secure more funding for AIDS care and research, and win passage of legislation that would ban discrimination against them.

Leaders of the march also said that it was held in part to pressure Clinton -- whom many of them view as their best-ever hope for change -- to keep the promises he made to gay voters as a candidate.

The march began under sunny skies about noon near the Ellipse, passed the White House, moved down Pennsylvania Avenue and then spilled onto the Mall near Seventh Street NW. There were rallies that lasted for hours at the start and finish of the route, and they featured a wide range of speakers, from politicians discussing serious issues to dancing drag queens who told bawdy jokes.

Marchers -- the last of whom strode past the White House at 5:55 p.m. -- were young and old, black, white, Latino and Asian. Some proceeded solemnly. Others treated the gathering as a daylong party. At the rally, which didn't end until 7:20 p.m., one speaker urged the crowd to call the event "Queerstock." Some women marched topless; some men wore dresses.

Franklin Burch, of Los Angeles, led the march. He wore an Army uniform and carried a U.S. flag in one hand and an "Uncle Sam: I Want You" poster in the other. A sign taped to his back read: "Gays Army Now."

"Gays and lesbians have a right to serve," said Burch, 70, who is gay. "This is America, and we have these rights."

Although participants in yesterday's march said they expected that the event may be derided as an exercise by a fringe minority, many said they felt they were simply being good Americans by coming to the nation's capital to voice their concerns.

"We're organizing like all other groups have done," said Michael Shepherd, 37, of Columbus, Ohio. "You can still come here and vent your anger and express your citizenship rights."

Thick crowds lined most of the march route. At times onlookers stood five deep, and they often drowned out the heckling of religious groups opposing the march.

Smaller protests -- staged by marchers and counter-demonstrators -- halted the procession several times, causing delays for others waiting at the Washington Monument grounds to join the march. About 2 p.m., hundreds of activists in the procession dropped to the pavement suddenly to hold a seven-minute "die-in" to symbolize the tragedy of AIDS. Later, a group of heterosexual military veterans opposed to the march briefly blocked it by lying down in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In general, however, marchers were greeted enthusiastically. Wherever one contingent -- the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- passed, onlookers rushed to curbs and gave them enormous ovations. Another of the most applauded contingents was the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans Association, which numbered about 1,000 people, some in full military uniform.

Many of those marching came to make political statements, but said that yesterday's event and all the activities surrounding it the last few days had left them with surprisingly strong new feelings of confidence to take back to their communities.

Timothy Hollis, 23, of Santa Fe, N.M., arrived at the grounds of the Washington Monument at 8 a.m. Eight hours later, his group was still waiting to march, but he didn't mind. "Every minute of this weekend has been erasing 23 years of living in the closet," he said.

For him and other members of a delegation from New Mexico, the weekend had been a catharsis after the recent defeat of a human rights bill in their state legislature. "We're here strong, and we're going to go back home strong," Hollis said.

Nearby, members of a delegation of gay men and lesbians from Texas agreed. Jane Rogers, 46, of Fort Worth, said the march was a turning point in her activism on gay and lesbian issues.

"The older I get, the more out I become," she said. "AIDS has caused many of us to become active in gay issues as well as the movement for health care reform. When I go back to Texas, I'll encourage people to register to vote. That's the only way to take this home and make it last."

JoNee Shelton, 43, also of Fort Worth, said, "What's so impressive is that we've got the mainstream here: doctors, lawyers, CPAs. It's less bizarre than events we've had in the past. . . . They are who they are, and they're tired of hiding it."

The march drew nationally known political leaders and entertainment and sports celebrities who spoke at morning and afternoon rallies.

Near the Washington Monument, civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson indirectly criticized Clinton's absence, telling a large crowd, "People you voted for have fled the city."

"No more homophobia," Jackson shouted. "Let's respect people, protect people. Everyone is somebody."

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of two openly gay members of the House, said that gay people "would no longer submit to unequal treatment." He also urged the crowd to ignore religious groups opposing them, saying that instead of showing compassion, they were using religion "as a stick with which you beat other people."

At an afternoon rally, Larry Kramer, a playwright and the founder of the AIDS activist group ACT-UP, roused the crowd by denouncing Clinton's work on AIDS to date as president, then by claiming that one of his Cabinet members, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, is a lesbian.

"I know it, she knows it, and thousands of lesbians up and down the coast know it," Kramer said. "So why is she denying it?"

A spokeswoman for Shalala dismissed Kramer's remarks. "It's not that it's anything to be ashamed of," said the spokeswoman, Avis LaVelle. "It's just not true. This issue has been dealt with over and over."

A number of times over the years, including in an interview with The Washington Post several months ago, Shalala said she is not a lesbian.

Celebrities on hand to support the march included actress Cybill Shepard and tennis star Martina Navratilova, who is a lesbian.

"What our movement for equality needs most is for us to come out of the closet," she told the crowd. "Let's come out and dispel all the rumors. Let's come out and set everybody straight, so to speak."

Yesterday's events began on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where more than 1,000 gay men and lesbians gathered for a nondenominational religious service about 8:30 a.m. There were songs about gay men and women and references from the Bible to civil rights.

The Rev. Donald Eastman of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches began the service by saying that, like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., "we too are a people with a dream."

Congregations from across the country held banners calling for equal rights for homosexuals. One sign said, "If Jesus was here, he'd march too."

Much of the service was subdued and serious, but some speakers were strongly assertive. The Rev. William F. Schulz, a Unitarian Universalist from Beacon, Mass., called the day an historic occasion. "The dam is breaking," he said. "Freedom is coming, and we're all here to give it a push."

Although the march drew a predominantly white crowd, hundreds of African American gay men and lesbians attended. They also held a pre-march rally in McPherson Square downtown to emphasize how difficult it has been for many of them to be openly gay. "And those who did often weren't welcomed by white gays," said Isaiah Poole, who has worked as a journalist and an AIDS activist in Washington.

A spirit of harmony prevailed between most of the gay men and lesbians, but some of them said they feared that some erotic displays and outrageous attire among the marchers, and some sexual innuendo in remarks by speakers, could hurt their cause.

"I know some of it is only a joke, but we can't afford that," said Charles Denino, 29, of Reading, Pa. "We ought to be here for serious issues."

There were also thousands of heterosexuals on hand to participate in the march. One was Bruce Morrow, 40, a criminal court judge in Detroit. He came with his wife, their daughter and his parents -- all to support his cousin, the Rev. David Morrow, who is openly gay.

Judge Morrow said he had come to the 1963 civil rights March on Washington too. "We believe in this," he said. "We believed in the march in '63, and we see this as an extension."

By sunset, large crowds of gay men and lesbians were still congregating on the Mall, listening to speeches and dancing to music. Many embraced each other, their eyes misting as they spoke about the last few days.

Tim Brookover, 32, said the weekend had been one of the most important of his life. In January, a close friend of his in Houston died of AIDS. Just before the march, Brookover turned in a cloth panel to the AIDS Quilt to honor his friend's memory.

"I know I'll go home and tell everyone about this," he said. "I can't imagine the politicians in Washington, and those who hate us and those who support us, not being affected by this sight."

Contributing to coverage of yesterday's Washington march for gay rights were Washington Post staff writers Peter Hong, Jon Jeter, Cindy Loose, Joyce Murdoch, Robert O'Harrow Jr., Robert Pierre, James Ragland, Fern Shen, Martin Weil and Linda Wheeler, and special correspondents Amy Kolczak and Gagan Nirula.